Days after Pat Haden announced that Clay Helton would be the permanent head coach of the USC Trojans, the new leader of the Men of Troy faced the Stanford Cardinal in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
The importance and the drama of that evening in Santa Clara, California — and a stadium which hosted Super Bowl 50 two months later — required no embellishment.
Helton — a replacement for Steve Sarkisian — received the elevation Ed Orgeron did not get a few years ago when another head coach and Pete Carroll coaching tree branch, Lane Kiffin, was fired. Haden, before stepping down as USC athletic director and passing the baton to Lynn Swann, placed an extraordinary level of faith in an interim coach who won the Pac-12 South title, but had hardly offered overwhelming evidence that he was the best fit for the job.
Was it realistic to think that USC could land Tom Herman? No — not based on Herman’s desire to return to Houston with a loaded team this year. Nevertheless, there’s a lot of room between a rock-star candidate (Herman) and Helton. The idea that USC had to settle for Helton, supported by the accompanying claim that no legitimate alternatives existed, is tenuous at best.
Haden definitely settled for Helton. At the very least, Haden could have (and probably should have) waited for the Stanford game to play out and then choose his permanent head coach after that regular season finale.
What if Helton failed to beat Stanford?
What if Helton got clobbered by Nick Saban and Alabama in the 2016 season opener?
USC doesn’t settle, but Haden — who subsequently stained his reputation after he left the AD chair — clearly did.
As everyone knows, the very fears which flowed through the USC fan base — namely, that Helton wouldn’t beat Stanford or even come close to defeating Alabama — have come true.
Very quickly, Helton must face Stanford and David Shaw (this Saturday, 8:07 Eastern, ABC/WatchESPN) for a second time in 10 months.
Very quickly, Helton must face the Pac-12’s best program in the present tense.
Very quickly, Helton faces a College Football Playoff elimination game, which doubles as a leverage game in the Pac-12 race.
The fear Helton likely doesn’t want to acknowledge — and which many USC fans privately harbor heading into The Farm for that Saturday night throwdown — is that if Stanford smashes USC, what future does Helton have in Los Angeles?
He’ll have a new athletic director — one who didn’t hire him — at the helm. He will have gone 0-4 against marquee opponents (remember, he lost to Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl, too). He will be 0-2 against Stanford and Shaw. His team will be out of the CFB Playoff race on the morning of September 18. UCLA will have a leg up in the Pac-12 South race.
Other than that, Helton faces absolutely no pressure to win this game.
Kidding aside, the inability to hang with Alabama for more than 25 minutes — the game was essentially over midway through the third quarter — makes it a must for Helton to at least coach well against Stanford. USC might lose a classic — everyone could appreciate the effort and the competence, and the program will move forward as the Pac-12 South favorite it currently is. A blowout, though, would be shattering.
Consider this: Of the coaches in Saturday’s really big games — Bama-Ole Miss, Michigan State-Notre Dame, Florida State-Louisville, Ohio State-Oklahoma, Oregon-Nebraska, and this one in Palo Alto — no coach has more on the line than Helton.
Maybe Mark Helfrich of Oregon faces as much pressure. Maybe Hugh Freeze of Ole Miss does, given the off-field scandals which have plagued the Rebels. However, those men have either made a national title game (Helfrich) or reached consecutive New Year’s Six bowls, winning one (Freeze).
Helton is naked, with no major achievements as a permanent head coach. At the very least, he has to show he can match wits with Shaw. Ideally, he needs to win… but if he can’t even get his team to be competitive, the bottom could fall out from under him, given the lack of harmony in the USC inner sanctum this September.
The heat is on Clay Helton — not so much a hot “seat” as a crucible of withering pressure to prove himself as the leader of a proud and storied college football program.
If he can’t cut down the Trees, he’ll be thrown into a forest of frustration and uncertainty, not knowing where to get to the lake and give himself enough water to survive until a rescue party arrives.
Helton must own The Farm in order to avoid the forest. We’ll see if his coaching skills can pass this supreme test at an early but important stage of his tenure in L.A.